Danny Gallivan and Dit Clapper are hanging over the catwalk high above the ice at Memorial Gardens. Well, actually it isn't really them. Gallivan, the Hall-of-Fame play-by-play announcer, died in 1993; Clapper, the Hall-of-Fame Boston Bruins superstar, died in 1978. But they are certainly here in spirit.
Ranjan Rupal, the play-by-play voice of the Nipissing Lakers of the Ontario University Athletics, grew up pretending he was the silver-throated and word-coining Gallivan. His sidekick analyst, Greg Theberge, is not only a former NHLer – 153 games with the Washington Capitals in the early 1980s – but is Dit Clapper's grandson.
"He's the colour guy," says Rupal, introducing his broadcast partner, "not the coloured guy."
The humour is deliberate, self-deprecating and ice-breaking. Rupal, 44, considers himself from the same school of political correctness that comedian Russell Peters explores – multiculturalism to believe in. And even laugh at.
He knows the reaction. By day he is the pleasant, soft-spoken pharmacist in the small town of Callander on the shore of Lake Nipissing. Each Friday night, however, he is the Voice of the Lakers, as caught up in the play and excitement of college hockey as the great Gallivan ever was in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
This night at Memorial Gardens, the Lakers are up against the league-leading University of Toronto Varsity Blues. It is a fast, well played and well coached game, with the powerful Blues outshooting the local heroes 54-37 and winning 3-2 on a goalmouth scramble late in the third period. The 1,377 fans go home disappointed with the result, but hardly with the price of such excellent entertainment: $10.
College hockey and the Junior A Trappers are the only higher level games left in this northern centre, since the major junior North Bay Centennials left in 2002 to become the Saginaw Spirit, based in Michigan.
The Lakers tried filling the city's hockey void right away back then, but failed. It wasn't until five years ago when a deal was struck between little Nipissing University and some local investors that it became feasible.
"It's a public-private enterprise," says Dennis Letham, one of the original partners (North Bay Mayor Al McDonald was another) and now the team's manager of operations. The school hires the coach and assembles the team; Letham has to worry about everything else: travel, hotels, equipment, sticks, ice time. After losing money for a couple of years, both the private side and the public side say today it's working just fine.
"Hockey is a market-driven sport," says Vito Castiglione, the school's manager of sports and recreation. "It creates interest. It brands the university."
When the pharmacist from little Callander heard about the plans, he figured why not. "They're going to be on television," he told himself. "I might as well get my name in the running early, because it's something I always wanted to do.
"I had no experience. I had no tape. I gave them an audition and they didn't have anyone else, and I've loved every minute of it."
Rupal had help – local sportscaster Bob Coles was pivotal – but he also had years of training on the streets of Cooksville, a neighbourhood in Mississauga, where his family had moved in the mid-1960s. His father Jagdish, mother Surinderjeet and brother Peter were all born in India, brother Harish, Ranjan and sister Sheela born in Canada .
Jagdish Rupal, a civil engineer, had arrived in Toronto determined to fit in to his new country. When he heard everyone talking endlessly about this "hockey," he got a ticket to a game at Maple Leaf Gardens, Leafs versus Boston Bruins, but found his seat was almost in the rafters. He couldn't see the puck nor understand the game.
The children, however, were different.
"My parents embraced Canadian traditions in the same way Yvan Cournoyer embraced Paul Henderson after The Goal," Rupal says. "We liked hamburgers and we liked maple syrup – and we loved hockey."
When they arrived in Cooksville, they found themselves living in the melting pot. "Our crescent became Maple Leaf Gardens," he remembers. "The Indian Rupals, the Dutch Vanveens, the Norwegian Bednars, the Lebanese Diabs, the Chinese Chins, the Scottish Millers and the Canadian McKays, Lindsays and Browns occupied the street on a daily basis, no matter what the season.
"It was watching kids in the street playing street hockey that sucked my family into hockey."
The family, both those born in India and those born here, went willingly, he says:
"For my parents, assimilating into Canadian culture was a priority. There was no vast ethnic community in which to find connections and the comforts of the old country. The street hockey was good and it was played every day after school. It was socially interactive, long before social interaction required Wi-Fi and an iPad.
The Rupal kids never signed up for organized hockey – "I don't think my parents understood how it was done" – but they all played with passion on the streets, Ranjan running endless play-by-play commentary all the while, usually in his head but often out loud. He wanted to be Danny Gallivan.
"It's disloyal for a Leafs fan growing up," he admits," but when you gathered to watch playoff hockey in the '70s, it was always the Canadiens and always Danny Gallivan."
The Rupal children all went on to university and professional careers – two civil engineers, a dentist and a pharmacist – but the pharmacist never lost his passion for hockey. He joined a beer league as a goaltender – he is known in North Bay hockey circles for his collection of NHL jerseys with the names of obscure backup goalies on the back – and he says the game served him in far more ways than just a bit of Tuesday night exercise.
"I have always faced a hurdle when meeting people for the first time," he says. "Especially in the north country. People see an Indian first. When I converse, they see an Indo-Canadian. When I play goaltender at a decent calibre, joke around, have a beer, they see a Canadian."
And now, when fans of the Nipissing Lakers turn on Channel 12 for the TVCogeco broadcast, they hear a smooth play-by-play broadcast that would please even Danny Gallivan.
Rupal and Theberge work well together, Rupal maintaining the flow of the action, a lineup card dangling from one hand so he never misses a player's name, while Theberge offers good insight during stoppages of play and replays.
Both had heard the rumours that major junior hockey might return to North Bay – something that became fact this week when the Brampton Battalion announced they will relocate for the 2013-14 season.
Both Rupal and Theberge plan to apply for the plum jobs of broadcasting the games.
The Nipissing Lakers, however, play only 28 games a season, 14 at home; the major junior hockey season is 66 games, 33 on the road, followed by what can be several weeks of playoffs.
"Simple," Rupal says if his application proves successful. "I would scale back on my pharmacy work.
"This is what I really want to do."
Throughout 2012-13 Roy MacGregor will examine the game, from house league to World Juniors, from the Women's World Championship in Ottawa next spring to a Thursday night beer league.
Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this story gave an incorrect spelling of Yvan Cournoyer's name. This online version has been corrected.